It’s difficult to know who to feel most sorry for in John Misto’s new play Dark Voyager.Should your sympathy go to director Anna Crawford, who struggles to bring life to an utterly confused script? Or the cast, who are better than the material they’ve been given? Or maybe Misto himself, for failing to realise his vision and find the drama in some of the most fascinating Hollywood stars of all time.
The play begins with a fictional meeting between ageing icons Joan Crawford (Kate Raison), Bette Davis (Jeanette Cronin) and legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Belinda Giblin). It’s on the eve of the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Crawford and Davis are at the height of their feud. The studio is expecting the film to be a complete flop, but Crawford and Davis try their hardest to band together and get Hopper onside for positive press coverage, while Hopper is simultaneously trying to get the pair together for her own purposes. At the end of the first act, Crawford bets Davis that she can get Marilyn Monroe (Lizzie Mitchell) to show up to their meeting. They send Hopper’s house boy Skip (Eric Beecroft) to collect her, and, lo and behold, she shows, completely off her face on pills and booze.
There are problems throughout the production, but the biggest failings are in Misto’s script. This is a play about ruthless ambition, but completely lacking in ambition. There’s nothing wrong with the kind of light, frivolous comedy Misto is aiming for, but if it’s not done well, there’s little point.
The construction is poor, and at almost two and a half hours, it’s far too long for such thin material. At one point, Misto needs to move Skip offstage for a private exchange between two characters. Skip announces that he is “going to get drunk” and wanders off the stage. He returns five minutes later. With a bottle. Drunk.
The thrills are meant to come from the barbs and zingers the Hollywood dames throw at each other, but the barbs largely fail to pierce the skin and the zingers don’t zing. Many of the gags work on homophobic stereotypes — “There are two men out there in black suits”, “They sound like your lesbian fans, Joan” — and aren’t anywhere near funny enough to justify their inclusion. And there are lines that simply baffle, like, “Have you ever heard of the guillotine?” (the answer is yes) and “Even your toenails have curves”. By the final half an hour, I was glad I hadn’t cloaked my coat, as I needed something to muffle my laughter in inappropriate moments.
There are plenty of twists in the final act, mostly drawn from a collection of rumours about the stars, but it’s far too late to care about the tangled web Misto has woven.
None of the performances move beyond caricature, even with Jeanette Cronin’s admirable and relentless attempts to make the material stick. Her Bette Davis is so broad even Davis herself would think it’d gone too far. Kate Raison tries the quiet, dignified image of Crawford, but just ends up falling flat, while Giblin is full of unfocused energy as Hopper. Mitchell brings every Monroe-esque vocal flourish and mannerism you’d expect, but little else. It’s a fine impersonation, but lacks any dramatic force. Beecroft is fine in the first act as Skip, who is completely lacking in confidence, but desperate to make a name for himself. But his characterisation falls apart when the denouement comes.
Anna Gardiner’s set makes it over the line with its black and white art deco styling, but the costumes don’t have an ounce of the glamour or sophistication she’s trying to conjure.
Really, you have to feel most sorry for the audience. I don’t understand how this play ended up on the Ensemble stage in the state it’s currently in. I assume it’s due to Misto’s reputation, but every playwright can do with some decent dramaturgical advice every now and then.